LONDON: The British pound seesawed wildly Friday and betting markets dramatically shortened the odds on Britain leaving the European Union as increasingly mixed signals challenged earlier market anticipation of a narrow victory for "remain."
The pound initially soared as polls closed and two opinion surveys put "remain" ahead and two leading supporters of the "leave" campaign said it appeared the pro-EU side had won. But it then suffered its biggest fall in years, plummeting from about $1.50 to almost $1.40 as results began to show stronger-than-expected support for quitting the bloc.
With just about 6 million of an expected 16 million votes counted, the result was effectively a 50-50 split — but "remain" was underperforming analysts' expectations.
"Few 'remain' strongholds are doing better than expected," said John Curtice, a University of Strathclyde political scientist and BBC election analyst. "There are far more places where 'leave' are doing better than expected."
"It may be possible that the experts are going to have egg on their face later on tonight," he said.
A vote to leave the EU would destabilize the 28-nation trading bloc, created from the ashes of World War II to keep the peace in Europe. A "remain" vote would nonetheless leave Britain divided and the EU scrambling to reform.
The Betfair market predicted a 51 percent chance of Britain leaving the EU — the first time in the referendum campaign the option has become the favorite. Bookies' odds on Brexit also shortened to as short as 6-5. They had been 5-1 only hours earlier, as polls pointed to a "remain" win.
The first results, from England's working-class northeast, were a smaller-than-expected "remain" win in Newcastle and a bigger-than-expected "leave" vote in nearby Sunderland. The "leave" side also outperformed expectations in other areas of England, though "remain" was ahead in early Scottish results.
There was better news in London, where the first districts to declare had strong "remain" majorities.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum and led the "remain" campaign, faces an uncertain future whichever side wins. Almost half the lawmakers from his Conservative Party backed an EU exit, and the "leave" campaign was led by potential leadership rivals, including former London Mayor Boris Johnson.
If "leave" wins, he may have no choice but to resign.
"If the prime minister loses this I don't see how he can survive as prime minister," said Scottish National Party lawmaker Alex Salmond. "Talk about lame ducks. This would be a duck with no legs and no stability whatsoever."
At a referendum night party at the London School of Economics, Kevin Featherstone, the head of the European Institute, said that whichever way things went, the vote should serve as a wakeup call to politicians across the continent.